Annie Proulx dazzles in third Wyoming-themed story collection
Rocky Mountain News
Vail CO, Colorado
Even after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her 1993 novel, The Shipping News, and watching her short story Brokeback Mountain earn accolades as an Academy Award-winning movie in 2005, Annie Proulx is still criticized for the honesty of her literary voice.
A New England native who moved to Wyoming in 1995 and now lives mostly in Wyoming, Proulx has grounded much of her work in the often rough and diversified voices of the American West. Has she put in enough years of Wyoming living, critics charge, to pen her western tales?
While her virtual newcomer status hardly trumps those who herald back-to-pioneer days, the beauty of her prose and the ease with which her characters rise vividly and memorably from the page belie all else.
Fine Just the Way It Is is the third of Proulx’s Wyoming story collections, following Close Range (1999) and Bad Dirt (2004), and its characters and scenarios are as hardy and painfully real as they come.
Consider Catlin, a young woman who falls in love in Testimony of the Donkey with a man whose egoistic eccentricities doom their relationship from Day 1. The relationship ends in a food-throwing, poster-ripping fight, and, as Marc flies to Athens to fight wildfires, Catlin finds freedom in tossing aside her watch and cell phone and embarking on a hike on her own – until she leaps onto a stone that swivels beneath her weight, pinning her leg and trapping her miles from the possibility of a Forest Service search and rescue.
In the ensuing pages, we hear Catlin’s mental shift from mild annoyance to a desperate, mind-gripping thirst:
“She felt as though electricity was shooting up through the rock and into her torso, needles and pins and the numbness that followed was almost welcome, although she dimly knew what it meant. Apparitions swarmed from the snowbanks above. . . . The sun was horrible and her tongue hung in her mouth like a metal bell clapper, clacking against her teeth. Her hands and arms had changed to black and grew leather, a kind of lichen. Her ears swarmed with rattling and buzzing and her shirt seemed made of a stiff metal that chafed her lizard skin.”
Here Proulx has taken a mundane argument between two somewhat petty, immature people and carried it to an almost spiritual realization of what is true and real and worth dying for. The ridiculous hobnail boots that Marc insists on wearing, despite Catlin’s abhorrence of them, and her tomato-head lettuce salad that he had maligned only the day before have been erased by the simple complexities of a day pack dropped too far off the path to reach, a reappearing gray jay Catlin has named Johnson, and the fact that her foot is unforgivingly wedged beneath an unmovable hunk of rock.
In Catlin and Marc’s story, Proulx shows her ability to elevate the norm to levels that are gripping and, ultimately, meaningful. Without memorable characters, however, nothing holds. And Proulx’s characters are indeed memorable.
In most stories, we meet them, as we do Catlin, as somewhat simple people with initially simple quandaries. But as the story unfolds, we find characters far more complex than we first imagined.
* Ray Forkenbrock, the 84-year-old grandpa in Family Man who greets most days in the Mellowhorn Home with a glass of whiskey and his granddaughter’s tape recorder as he remembers the difficult secrets that define his family;
* Archie and Rose McLaverty, the passionate young couple in Them Old Cowboy Songs who set out to make a home for themselves in the raw pioneer West but meet their ends in difficult, unglamorous ways;
* Hi and Helen Alcorn, another young pioneering couple in The Great Divide whose efforts in the wild-horse-trapping business turn fatal;
* And Dakotah Lister, the young woman in the final story whose life takes her from the misdirection of a failed marriage to the brutalities of the war in Iraq, as grief and loss sadly begin to define who she is.
Most of these characters must face the hard truth of mortality, such as when Dakotah must tell her unsuspecting in-laws of their son’s insurmountable injuries in the war:
“The silence spread out like a rain-swollen river, lapping against the walls of the room, mounting over their heads. . . . [Dakotah] felt the Hickses’ fear begin to solidify into knowledge. Already the grief was settling around the tense couple like a rope loop, the same rope that encircled all of them. She had to draw the Hickses’ rope tight and snub them up to the pain until they went numb, show that it didn’t pay to love.”
Proulx balances the dark places in her collection with a humor that acknowledges, as the pioneers did, that death and sickness are a part of life; we can dwell on our hardships or find moments to chuckle at the ironies.
Consider Swamp Mischief, which features the Devil himself and his private secretary demon, Duane Fork. Here, the Devil, in his boredom, demands the e-mails of ornithologists in Iceland and America, and decides to toy with an upcoming bird symposium. What better way to alarm unsuspecting ornithologists than to send four pterodactyls swooping over? Better yet, why not use pterodactyls with implanted fossil shark teeth to make them even more impressive?
Proulx manages admirably to temper even death with a touch of humor, as if she were winking as she tells each hard tale, reminding us that regardless of how difficult life’s truths may be, there must be hope to draw us ever forward – a decidedly pioneer mindset, even for a virtual newcomer.
Jennie Camp’s reviews and short stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review and other publications. She lives in Platteville.
Proulx has gained greater fame since the film Brokeback Mountain, based on one of her short stories. But she’s far from happy with the attention. The film, she said in a recent interview, has become “the source of constant irritation in my private life,” as people “constantly send ghastly manuscripts and pornish rewrites of the story to me.”
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